The First Phoenician Temple of Tyre

The discovery, according to museum director Layla Badr, came after Tyre antiquities official, Ali Badawi, informed her of a 1970s finding in the area (Photo: Al-Akhbar)

By: Joanne Bajjaly

Published Monday, December 3, 2012

Last summer, a team from the American University of Beirut (AUB) discovered the first Phoenician temple in Tyre. The temple was actually found forty years earlier, but remained hidden from sight by bamboo.

The audience sat in AUB’s museum auditorium, fixated on the photos from the university’s 2011 summer discovery in the southern city of Tyre.

The discovery, according to museum director Layla Badr, came after Tyre antiquities official, Ali Badawi, informed her of a 1970s finding in the area, “about which he had little information.”

“Badawi had noticed, at the time, the upper level of a structure which resembled a Phoenician temple,” said Badr. “So we asked him to work on the site.”

A team joined him on-location, she said. The area was blocked from view by four-meter-high bamboo; after several days of clearing the area, the walls and floor of the structure were revealed.

Following further study, the team was able to confirm that the structure was a Phoenician temple dating back to the 5th century BC.

Arriving at such a conclusion was not easy, she explains, “given that no artifacts were found on-site, for the former antiquities general-director Maurice Shehab had completed a dig in this area of Tyre in 1973, and moved all the pieces found to the city’s storehouse.”

“He did not tell anyone about his discovery,” Badr confirmed, “nor did he record or publicize it as usual, but kept the matter secret – with the exception of a statement at a conference in Rome, in which he said that he had discovered a Phoenician structure.”

This meant that the AUB team had to rely on the architecture of the building in order to determine its dating and origin.

The first room that was discovered, according to Badr, was a prayer area – 20 meters long and 6.5 meters wide – that connected to a two-meter-high altar.

The room was “used for offering sacrifices,” she said.

In the pictures shown at the conference, one could see a small room next to the altar full of ashes and charred black walls.

The team had sifted through the remnants and found animal bones: “the remains of fish bones, sheep and goats, which were slaughtered on the altar as a sacrifice to the gods,” according to Badr.

Outside the prayer room, the archaeologists found three small, circular water basins connected to one another.

This was further confirmation that the temple was Phoenician, because Phoenicians “are known to include water in their temples, for ablution was a common practice before entering a place of worship,” Badr explained.

She expanded on the evidence of its Phoenician origin: “the pattern of the stones on the temple floor, with two vertical followed by two horizontal [lines], is classic Phoenician design. This simple approach gives the floor an attractive mosaic-like look.”

Given that no artifacts or writings were found by the excavation team, it remains difficult to determine the god to whom the temple was dedicated.

“The small size of the structure,” Badr reasoned, “most likely means that it is not for Melkart, the Phoenician god, whose image is stamped on Phoenician coins in Tyre.”

Badr further noted that the initial studies conducted on the excavation site suggest that the structure might be compared to the Temple of Amrit in Syria, where a similar sacrificial altar was erected.

Badr added, “During the last days of the excavation, the team found a large decorative pattern etched on the rear wall of the altar, which appears to be of Egyptian origin and was widely used at the time to decorate altars, as in the case of Amrit.”

Badr ended her discussion by concluding that – given all these comparisons – the structure is the first complete Phoenician temple to be uncovered in Lebanon, and the first of its kind in Tyre.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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